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For Neil Seery, the hardest fight comes with retirement

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The 37-year-old Irishman has gone from relative unknown to cult icon during his UFC tenure.

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Neil Seery fights in his retirement fight Sunday at UFC Fight NIght 113.
Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Nobody really gave Neil Seery a chance at establishing himself in the UFC ahead of his short-notice debut against Brad Pickett in March 2014.

Yet, out of the five Irish charges who played a starring role at UFC’s Dublin return the same year, only Seery and fellow Dubliner Conor McGregor remain on the UFC’s roster.

The former Cage Warriors champion has always been a fighter’s fighter. For years, he shied away from interviews hoping that his performances would do the talking for him. However, through his sharp wit and unrelenting fighting style, the 37-year-old became a cult icon on the Emerald Isle.

“I always knew he was good enough to establish himself in the UFC,” said close friend and fellow Team Ryano fighter, Paul Redmond.

“People forget that he fought as heavy as 75 kilos just to get fights throughout his career. When they eventually formed the 125-pound division, he went through every flyweight in Europe. The amount of people that have got behind him was a little bit more of a surprise, but it’s nothing he doesn’t deserve.

“It’s the everyman thing,” Redmond continued. “He’s a normal Joe Soap. You could never imagine seeing Seery in an expensive suit. I know it’s a bit of a cliché, but he really is a working class hero and people can relate to that.

“He never backs down from anything, no matter what’s thrown at him. He’s taken the hardest fights in that division and didn’t bat an eyelid, all while holding down a full-time job. He’s one of a kind. Some people have to put a lot of effort into getting a following, but it just happened naturally for him.”

The truth is, Seery nearly hung up his gloves long before his UFC call-up, but his loyal coach — one of the founding fathers of Irish MMA, Andy Ryan — never gave up hope that he could make it to the Octagon.

“I would never have made it to the UFC if it wasn’t for Andy,” said Seery.

“Even when I was in Cage Warriors after I had won the title, people were talking to me about the UFC and I used to laugh in their faces. Andy was saying it to me before anyone, and I never took him seriously.

“I can remember when the UFC first came to Dublin, I was like a fanboy. I went down and watched Rich Franklin and Dan Henderson training and everything. I can remember thinking, ‘Jesus, imagine being in there,’ when I was looking at the Octagon in the 3 Arena, but I never used to think it was a realistic thing to aspire to.

“Andy used to bring up the UFC and I’d tell him to f**k off because I thought he was winding me up!” Seery added, laughing. “I just loved the sport. I’d always train and I’d always turn up to train.

“I never had the goal of being in the UFC. I just kept working and eventually, it happened.”

On Sunday night, Seery will sign off on his UFC career on his own terms. Having kept a full-time job throughout his MMA career to support his family, wife Sinead and four (soon to be five) children, the financial burden of retirement isn’t as prominent for the Finglas native as it has been for other retired fighters.

The fear of the unknown definitely is, though.

“I don’t like seeing that begging,” he said. “(Fighters) asking people for fights, asking people to come to your seminars…I don’t know, it’s just something that I’ve never been comfortable with.

“Fighters put things out hoping people will lap it up, but what happens when they stop fighting? Yeah, they might show up on fight week and have a hundred microphones in their faces, but how many out of those hundred media members are going to ring them when they pack it in and ask them how life is treating them?

“People can leave this game and be financially ruined. They can have drug and alcohol addictions because they can’t deal with being out of the limelight.

“As I’m sitting here now talking to you, I can honestly say that I think my biggest fight is still to come, beyond Sunday night in Glasgow,” Seery continued.

“I have never really got caught up in the buzz of the fight game. There are fighters who are completely reliant on the sport and they don’t prepare themselves for life beyond MMA.

“We see it all the time, fighters getting cut from UFC and then they’re popping up on all types of promotions and getting beaten around the cage just to hold onto that bit of fame. That was never going to be me.”

Between fishing, his support of Dublin’s Gaelic football team and Liverpool Football Club, the various activities his children partake in, his full-time job and his fighting career, Seery is constantly on the go. But, it’s what he will do with the hours he used to commit to fighting that is troubling him.

“To be honest, that’s why I have so many interests outside of fighting, because I know I need something to fill that void when I retire,” Seery said.

“Just having the target of a fight, or even just training, it keeps you going. People say ‘Oh, you can be a coach,’ but to be a successful coach you have to start from scratch if you want to do your own thing. Otherwise, you have to fit into a camp and you don’t want to be stepping on other peoples’ toes.

“It’s only the exceptional fighters that walk away and can maintain their lifestyles. I’ve seen fighters go bananas after they retire. They don’t even have enough money to pay their mortgages, but most importantly they don’t know how to fill the hours that they’ve dedicated to MMA.

“That’s what I’m thinking now — what the f**k am I going to do after Sunday?” Seery continued.

“It’s scary as f**k. After a fight, no matter if you win or lose, it’s hard to deal with things on Monday morning after coming from weeks of people being all over you, wanting to hear your opinions and wanting to tell you how good you are at fighting.

“You’re sitting on the couch scratching your hole, thinking about what you’re going to do next. I know I’m done now, so I’m hoping that I don’t find myself stuck in a rut like that.”

A lot of Seery’s peers have been very critical of the UFC and it’s handling of fighters, but Seery believes that fighters have only got themselves to blame for putting all of their eggs into the mixed martial arts basket.

“The UFC is like an employer,” he said. “They give you fights, and you can take them or leave them. That’s all on the fighter.

“Not everyone has to fight. You can walk away whenever you feel this isn’t the job for you. There’s no one twisting your arm and making you fight. There might be a few exceptions to that, but for the most part, you can do what you want.

“UFC is a means to gain money for fighters; they are not here to babysit us and spoon-feed us.”

It’s the end of a 14-year relationship for Seery. MMA has been his stress-reliever, his passion and what has separated him from the crowd. His bout against Brazilian prospect Alexander Pantajo marks the end of his storied career, but he is relishing that incomparable feeling of being locked inside the Octagon for the final time.

“There is nothing that can substitute the feeling you get when you’re in there. The buzz you get when that door locks isn’t like anything I have ever felt in my life,” Seery said.

“I don’t know what switches on in my head, but there is nowhere I would rather be when it’s going down. I can’t hear anything when I’m in the Octagon. I can’t feel anything.

“All I do is look at the guy that’s coming at me, trying to kill me, and all I want to do is put him away before he gets the chance to do it to me. Any stress you had going in is completely taken away because all you can do it focus on what’s in front of you.

“I don’t remember much (of my fights) immediately, but then you suddenly start to remember the fight and it can frighten you. It takes being locked in there with someone to bring it out of you. It’s a ferocious thing, sometimes it’s hard to believe that you have that side to you at all.”

As with the vast majority of his previous contests, Seery goes into the fight as the underdog on Sunday night.

“I’ve been the underdog my whole life,” he said. “Go back through all the old posts from when the scene was just kicking off. People would be rubbing their hands together when they got matched with me.

“Nobody ever gave me a chance. I think about fighting Steve McCombe back in the day. I stood beside him, he was a specimen of a man at the time, and even I didn’t know how I was going to beat him. I killed him in there.

“My whole career was written off from the word go.”

Due to his consummate underdog status, Seery takes pride in the fact that his UFC career has outlasted many other fighters — some of whom completely wrote him off before his UFC tenure even got underway.

“I still remember going over to London before my first UFC fight against Brad Pickett,” Seery said. “The fight hadn’t happened yet and I was watching a preview by that big f**king clown, Luke Barnatt.

“He was saying, ‘Neil Seery? Who’s this guy, he hasn’t got a chance,’ then straight after the fight he comes over shaking my hand talking about what a great performance it was.

“He riddled me on that preview. Where is he now? I’m still in the UFC and he’s in no man’s land. This isn’t even my full-time job. You should think twice about ruling someone out when you know nothing about them.

“There are very few fighters that can make people remember the end of their career. Look at that video the UFC put out the other day, this is all based on the last couple of years of my career. I’m very proud of that.”

Seery has won the respect of his fellow Irish pros for his thoughts on the fight game as well as his hellish Octagon showings. Having unexpectedly risen to prominence with the UFC, he had some veteran advice for the next generation of fighters before he makes his final walk.

“My advice to young fighters is: know what’s coming, because very few people can make a lifetime’s amount of money in the few years that they’re fighting in the UFC,” Seery said.

“Go and speak to the people who have done it all in this county, there are a lot of them. They reached the top of the game and they aren’t driving a Rolls Royce. Ask them how the fight game affected them mentally. Ask them how it affected them financially.

“People forget that you’re putting everything on the line every time you step in there.

“I see all these people walking around thinking that it’s the dog’s bollocks to be a fighter, but make no mistake about it, there is a stigma attached to it.

“I work with a load of multi-millionaires, absolute morons, that think they can look down on me because I am a fighter,” Seery continued. “It’s not just a work thing. If some people find out you’re a fighter they get nervous around you, people are afraid you’re going to lash out sometimes.

“You catch weird looks out of the corner of your eye all the time. It intimidates a lot of people and that’s never been something that I’ve wanted to do.

“You’re trying to go to the pub and the bouncers are wary of you. There are lots of examples of that, and it has affected me in my life, and people need to be aware of that too.

“Golfers don’t get that treatment, or lads who jump horses over fences — they are respected. We’re every bit as competitive, we do deserve that kind of respect, but the stigma is very real.”

The Irish flyweight could only think of one regret he had from his career.

“When I started out in this game, I was sparring with heavyweights. That’s a regret of mine,” he said. “Controlling things like that can add length to your career.

“Back then, there were so few people in the sport, that you had to take what was there, but the hard sparring is definitely a regret. I really hope younger fighters are careful with that.

“You hear of teenagers trying to take each other’s heads off when they’re sparring and that’s just stupid. Your career could be over by the time you’re 25 if you keep going at that rate.”

With all the attention from the combat sports world being directed toward Conor McGregor and Floyd Mayweather’s impending boxing match, Seery’s exit from the sport could be every bit as understated as his ascent.

In the same way that Irish fans were not aware of the journey they would go on with the hard-nosed Dubliner when he signed with the UFC, they have no idea how much they are going to miss him after he signs off in Glasgow.